Dancing Backwards, By Salley Vickers

A woman on a cruise opens her old notebooks – and finds the courage to confront her past
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The Independent Culture

Salley Vickers has a gift for making the most unlikely settings for fiction absolutely compelling. Much of her last novel, The Other Side of You, took place in a bland consulting room, yet she brought to this essentially static and, in clumsier hands, too obvious a setting, a drama that swept me away. Dancing Backwards, her new work, is located on a Transatlantic cruise-liner. My one bad experience of making such a voyage had put me off ever repeating it again – in life or in fiction – but within 10 pages, Vickers had won me over.

The isolation of a liner in mid-Atlantic, its rigid hierarchies, its outdated dress codes, that sense of a group of people trapped with no alternative but to talk too freely to each other (precisely what I hated in real life), all become tools in this deceptively simple novel for what have become Vickers' trademarks – clearly drawn, beguiling but damaged central characters, half in this world, half in themselves; an all-pervading psychological astuteness; an acute but lightly worn sense of humankind's smallness within the created universe; subtle but precise literary allusions; and peerless story-telling.

Violet Hetherington boards the Queen Caroline to give herself time to reflect on her past before a reunion in the States with a friend from university from whom she has been estranged for many years. Slowly, slowly and with such a wonderfully light touch that you don't notice it happening, Vickers unveils both that past and Violet's character. The life of the liner – its collection of unhappy people, on the move from something they cannot quite face; and its endless, exhausting round of distracting activities that stop anyone from taking advantage of the space a five-day crossing with a blank horizon allows for reflection – is the backdrop against which Violet finds the courage to open her own notebooks from 30 years earlier. Through them, sitting on the balcony of her superior suite, she relives the life she had shared with Edwin, jointly editing a poetry magazine, until their chaste, domestic bliss was shattered by the arrival of Bruno, his best friend whom she both despises and marries.

What brings the two threads of her story together are the dancing lessons she attends on board, entangling her in a sub-plot with the dastardly but damaged Dino, her twinkle-toed teacher, but also lifting her sufficiently out of her self, and her past passiveness, to give her the confidence to face Edwin.

Vickers is a brave writer. The liner, the dancing, the unhappy past and the notebooks are all uncomplicated devices to build a story, that have been used many times before. Yet her triumph – seen in her other novels, including my favourite, Instances of the Number 3 – is to endow them with something fresh, intriguing and enlightening.

In Violet, a woman who has gone along with others' wishes for so long despite a voice inside her calling out to say no, most of us will recognise a sliver of ourselves. So her finding the strength to change, both during her ocean crossing and in the book's climax, her reunion with Edwin, is also our triumph, our lifeline. And as a final, flamboyant tour de force, Vickers even manages, having cast Violet as a once-prize-winning poet who lost her muse when she lost herself, to write a very decent poem in the voice of her understated heroine.